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Agricultural biotech a new frontier
UConn one of two major universities
in state with biotechnology program

Biotechnology is the newest frontier in today's agriculture, leading to research and development, job creation and new revenue in Connecticut, according to a new report.

Agriculture as a whole contributed $1.8 billion and more than 13,000 jobs to the state's economy in 1996 and was one of only two industries that grew through the recent recession, according to Building Agricultural Biotechnology in Connecticut, a report issued recently by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering (CASE).

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture and CASE announced the findings and recommendations of the study at a press conference on October 25 in the State Armory in Hartford.

"Connecticut has the industrial base, economic potential and the academic excellence required to diversify and utilize the tools of agricultural biotechnology," said Thomas Chen, director of UConn's Biotechnology Center and a professor of molecular and cell biology. "Modern biology and biotechnology techniques have the potential to play a major role in the economic revitalization of the state."

Chen chaired the CASE Task Force on Agricultural Biotechnology earlier this year to identify the research potential and economic opportunity of agricultural biotechnology in the state and to make recommendations for further investment.

"This (study) is a milestone in ag-biotech and also represents a new beginning," said Shirley Ferris, commissioner of agriculture, at the press conference. "Based on what we have heard today, it seems sure that any expansion in biotech should include agricultural biotech."

Ferris urged that public and private sectors act together to enhance the development of agricultural biotechnology in Connecticut. She said she hoped the CASE study would "serve as a catalyst to create an environment that encourages small businesses and diversification in the biotech industry."

UConn has made an investment in biotechnology, luring Chen from the University of Maryland two years ago. A new agricultural biotechnology facility is being constructed under UConn 2000.

"UConn is one of the two major universities in the state that have an active biotechnology program," said Robert Smith, vice provost for research and graduate education and dean of the graduate school, one of several UConn officials who attended the press conference. "The area of biotechnology is especially important to UConn because it ties to our core mission in agriculture. Accordingly, agricultural biotechnology will be an important component of future research and education."

Chen stressed the need for more investments in biotechnology and recommended several vehicles to realize the economic potential of agricultural biotechnology. He suggested establishing a Connecticut agricultural information clearing house, an Internet site devoted to agricultural biotechnology research, industry and business in the state.

"It is also important to streamline and strengthen education programs in order to train students to meet the new challenge," Chen added.

The CASE study was released in conjunction with the agriculture department's Second Annual Ag Expo, a two-day event highlighting agriculture in Connecticut, that had over 100 booths featuring agricultural businesses and ag-biotech demonstrations and information. UConn had several displays, including a tissue cell culture procedure that Ferris said she believes will revolutionize the nursery industry; genetic engineering technology producing fast growing fish; and information on academic programs and research interests.

Usha R. Palaniswamy